And here is your starter for ten...

My great passion is 'Countdown': it proves, Zen-like, that in life there is no right answer

WHAT HAPPENED to general knowledge? It used to exist, surely, along with a pretty clear sense of what did or did not constitute general knowledge. I remember, when at school, being ragged for being rather vague about the offside rule, and retorting sharply that we were all ignorant about some things; "I don't know a lot about footie, but then you," I said, "probably don't know the keys of Beethoven's piano sonatas in order. "That," came the serious reply, "is not general knowledge."

No, it probably isn't, I had to agree. "General knowledge" used to exist as a single entity 20 years ago. Now, it seems to be disappearing. What is taking its place is a knowledge which is fragmented and individual. It's a bit frightening; it looks a lot like ignorance.

One of the nice things about the writer's life is that you get to develop an intimate acquaintance with daytime TV. Years ago, whenever I was off school with a borderline cold, I always tried to stretch it till Thursday to discover how this week's Crown Court worked out. And now - God, the joy of it - I don't even have to drink Lucozade to put the telly on at eleven o'clock in the morning.

I understand that the programmes are better in the evenings, when most people look at it - or at any rate different. But why would anyone want anything better? The cheap shows working a makeover on anything from a mother of four to a chipboard trolley? That weird, laborious antiques show on Channel 5 where people swap their old tat for Channel 5's? The mesmerising adverts for more and more elaborate devices to enable the elderly to get in and out of the bath? Who could ask for anything more?

My great passion is Countdown, that inspiring, almost Zen-like witness to the fact that, in our lives, there is no right answer; you are given a jumble of letters, and do as best you can with them; you grow up, discover yourself to be Richard Whiteley, and do as best you can with that. Inspiring, as I say, but before Countdown is a much grimmer programme, 15-to-1. It is a general knowledge quiz; there is a right answer, which the glittering and menacing quiz-master holds, and wrong answers, one of which the contestants generally choose.

It's normally quite a dull affair. But what has made it rather interesting in the last couple of weeks is that it has turned its attention to sixth- formers, competing on behalf of their school. The questions are relentlessly Top of the Form: a few capitals of American states, a few semi-trick questions ("What is the chemical formula for ice?"), a few embarrassing-uncle questions about Kula Shaker and the Teletubbies.

But, my God, the things they don't know. Someone had no idea, couldn't even venture a name for the composer of Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. Another thought, with every appearance of confidence, that the wife of William IV was Queen Victoria. A whole team had never heard of Lech Walesa, or Solidarity. I know, I know; it's a very stressful experience, and they are very young, after all, and it's more than likely that if William G Stewart shone a bright light in my eyes and asked me what the key of the Eroica symphony was, I would goggle gormlessly and then say "scorbutic acid", as the nation laughed. But there is a sense that general knowledge is ceasing to exist, that we all know different things.

One of the reasons is that we have lost confidence in the idea of a shared culture. There is a slightly uncomfortable aspect, these days, to watching a quizmaster ask a girl of Indian descent about Chaucer, knowing that he is not going to ask her neighbour who commissioned the Padshahnama.

All the same, that is a criticism of a particular notion of "general knowledge", and not of the concept of a loose, but shared, body of facts. It moves on from time to time, the terracotta warriors of the ancient Chinese registering on the communal mind, the arguments and analyses of CP Snow turning, almost overnight, into a specialised interest. We can argue, of course, about what "general knowledge" consists of, here and now - Solidarity but probably not La Lotta Continua - but about its value in general there ought to be no argument.

It looks a trivial exercise, but I don't think it is. I suspect that almost all intelligent people are pretty good at general knowledge. The retention and retrieval of cultural trivia is probably a fairly reliable guide to someone's general curiosity. Of course, there are occasional freaks who have no interest in anything outside set theory, but they are rarities. Me, if I were the admissions tutor for a university, I wouldn't bother interviewing; I'd just have a huge round of 15-to-1. And I certainly wouldn't let in the poor sap who thought Portugal was one of the Balearic Islands.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits